MTA chief: We need $12 billion in federal aid to avoid 'draconian' cuts

Alfonso A. Castillo for Newsday

August 26, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on August 26, 2020.

Laying off workers will be a “last resort” if the MTA is forced to take drastic measures to close a COVID-19-related budget deficit that is expected to reach $10 billion next year, the agency’s chief told state lawmakers on Tuesday.

But labor leaders said job cuts should be off the table altogether, given the sacrifices made by workers throughout the pandemic.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Patrick Foye’s remarks came as he testified at a virtual hearing of the New York State Legislature on the funding crisis faced by the MTA, which has seen its finances “obliterated” by the pandemic. With ridership down throughout all its agencies — including by 76% at the LIRR — Foye said the MTA is losing $200 million a week.

Foye reiterated that, without $12 billion in federal aid, the transit agency will have to turn to several “draconian actions” that he said he will be outlined further at a special meeting of the MTA Board on Wednesday.

Foye said those measures could include wage freezes, fare and toll hikes beyond those already scheduled, service cuts and “reductions in workforce as a last resort.”

“Outside of federal funding, none of our options are good,” said Foye, who noted that the fiscal crisis faced by the MTA is worse even than the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. “Our sole focus now is on survival.”

But MTA labor leaders, who testified separately at the five-hour-long hearing, balked at any talk of job cuts. Tony Utano, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 — the MTA’s largest labor organization — urged the agency to commit to “no layoffs, no matter what.”

“They were needed and put to risk throughout this entire pandemic and should be secured into the future,” said Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR’s largest union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

COVID-19 has already taken the lives of 130 MTA workers, and sickened many more. Labor leaders urged the authority’s leadership to do more to protect its employees, including by more stringently enforcing its face mask requirement for riders. Although Foye said the compliance rate is “very high,” Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) noted that commuter constituents complain many still forgo masks.

“It’s made them not want to take the train again,” Kaminsky said.

Foye said the MTA remains “very focused on increasing mask compliance,” and has taken several steps, including handing out free masks at stations, installing PPE vending machines at Penn Station, and developing a new feature on the LIRR’s Train Time app that allows passengers to monitor crowding conditions on each train car, so they can choose to move to another car if they spot someone without a mask in their car.

While many state lawmakers supported the MTA’s calls for a federal bail out, Sen. John Liu (D-Queens) questioned the size of the authority’s request.

“The MTA’s already gotten … $3.9 billion from the federal government,” Liu said, referencing the federal aid received in March by the authority in the first COVID-19 stimulus bill, the CARES Act. “And you’re saying that the MTA needs another $12 billion on top of that? I mean, our State of New York is facing a revenue shortfall of $14 billion.”

MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said the amount sought reflects what is expected to be a very prolonged decline in revenues, including fares and tolls, which cover about half of the authority’s operating expenses. Foran said fare revenue is not projected to return to “close to pre-pandemic levels” until 2023.

Given its financial state, State Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck) criticized a plan by the MTA to add 776 positions throughout the agency, including 100 for LIRR COVID-19-related cleaning, “at a time when we need to be delivering more for less.” Foye disputed the figures, which are included in the MTA's most recent financial update.

MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins clarified on Twitter that, although the positions have been budgeted, they represent a “ceiling which we can hire against” and, because of the financial crisis, will not all be filled.